With the 2019 Rugby World Cup gearing up to take place in Japan, an interesting dialectic has been taking place. Players, and Rugby fans, are being asked to respect the Japanese culture by covering their tattoos, so certain questions have been raised.
It’s these questions, and more, that are being brought up...but it seems the teams are being ultra professional, and respectful. “Tournament organiser, Alan Gilpin, was keen to stress that players, especially those in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, where half-sleeve tattoos designate hierarchy and warrior status, and date back 2000 years, were respectful of the local customs...he says, ‘When we raised it with the teams a year or so ago, we were probably expecting a frustrated reaction, but there hasn’t been at all..they want to respect the Japanese culture.”
The interesting thing is that just as the Polynesian’s, and similar indigenous people, view their tattoos as an integral part of their culture, Japanese tattooing is just as intrinsic to Japanese culture...it’s just that there is a severe denial of it. Irezumi is possibly one of the most famous aspects of Japan, right up there with Hello Kitty. Their style of tattooing is so much at the heart of global tattoo culture itself, that it seems absolutely ridiculous to continually drag out yakuza’s as the reason to why Japanese tattooing continues to be illegal. The excuse is tired. This is no longer about associations with a criminal underground; it’s people gripping tightly to their preconceived notions and prejudices about what tattoos are, what tattoos mean, and who gets them.
But we’re not just talking about the yakuza who are alive and kicking. We’re also talking about Japanese tattoo history: hundreds of years of using tattooing as a means to mark criminals, or to quell important religious rituals during the early 1800’s. But, personally, I think if we move beyond this obsession with tattoos as a symbol of yakuza, if we stop mentioning this every single time Japanese tattooing is brought up, we can move beyond it. Because, after all, that’s what’s happening in the West.
And with the Rugby World Cup, new attitudes and an age of enlightenment may be sparked, as far as tattoos are concerned, within Japan. Seiji Hori, a Beppu hotel association official stated, “There are many Japanese people enjoying tattoos as well, and we would like to avoid treating only foreigners differently. We hope we can enhance our tolerance and understanding on the occasion of the Rugby World Cup.” Another Itami official told Kyodo, “With the Olympics coming up as well, we feel the need to discuss the issue of tattoos.” It seems everyone is doing their part to uphold a mentality of tolerance and compassion.
Teams playing at the Rugby World Cup will be regarding Japanese cultural needs with serious dignity. “Samoa coach Steve Jackson is so determined to avoid the off-field issues that have previously plagued the Pacific islanders that he called in Japanese cultural experts to advise his players when to cover up their tattoos during the World Cup...He has also concentrated on ensuring his players have an appreciation of Japanese culture to avoid any misunderstandings while they are in the host nation.”